Fáilte go Conamara
The Films of Bob Quinn
The films of Bob Quinn, largely unseen in North America, provide an excellent example of a specifically anti-colonialist cinema functioning inside of Europe. Although the ongoing occupation of Northern Ireland is the common lightning rod for debate about Irish colonialism, Quinn steers away from this topic to engage in a way that the Irish people,especially those living in rural areas, are struggling to break away ffrom the legacy of colonialism. Although he has made over sixty films (and is one of Ireland's most prolific filmakers) few of them have been exhibited widely in cinemas. Together these films help to bring ongoing themes into focus. His experimental/ Godardian featurette Lament for Art O' Leary (1975) and his documentary Atlantean (1984) both deal with colonialism head on, while two of his narrative films Poitin (1978) and The Bishop's Story (1994) deal more with the oppressions of living within a rural community. His work is certainly insurgent, although aside from Lament for Art O'Leary he steers away from directly inserting political content into his work. Rather, he makes films that are radically populist, arguing for the independence and autonomy of the wretched of Ireland.
Quinn started out working for Irish state television, Radio Telefis Eireann (RTE). After major changes there, he left in 1969 to start his own film company, Cinegael, based on the Conamara islands, where he has lived ever since. He has gone on to produce an incredibly wide variety of work, including features, shorts and documentaries. All of his independent films have been made under Cinegael's umbrella, and Quinn now occupies the position of the wise veteran of Irish independent cinema. (See Patsy Murphy's essay for the Galway Film Fleadh's 1993 Quinn retrospective). His latest film The Bishop's Story was somewhat of a breakthrough in that it is his first to be released in 35mm. The film however is a reworking of his 1987 film Budawanny (shot in 16mm, and which I do not discuss here), with a few new scenes shot in 35mm, some of the narrative reogranised and the release prints struck in the costlier gauge. "If Budawanny was the old Testament", he wrote in Film Ireland, "The Bishop's Story would be the New, the fulfillment of the Old" Across these genres and forms, Quinn concens himself with the liberation of the people of Ireland, and the diversity of his work indicates his recognition of the complexity of true liberation.
Quinn's "breakthrough' film was also a breakthrough for Irish cinema as a whole. It marked the first independently produced film completely in the Gaelic language, and it was particularly notable for its visual inventiveness. Further, this fiery nationalistic tale came as its sponsor, Official Sinn Fein, an essentially socialist arm of the Sinn Fein organisation, was breaking with the Provisional Sinn Fein, whose goals were more traditionally Republican. It was a film that provided a glimpse of what an insurgent Irish cinema could look like.
Lament takes place in present day Conamara, where a play based on the last great lament in the Irish language is being produced. The lament, written by O'Leary's wife Eileen, tells the story of an Irish landowner in the 18th century who returns to his family's farm, now controlled by the English. It was their defeat of the Irish chieftains that forced O'Leary into exile, and he now returns and struggles to come back to the life that he once knew. Quinn moves between footage of rehearsal in the present and the narrative of the lament, staged in 18th century costume style. Although the entire cast of the play is Gaelic-speaking (as befits the population of rural Conamara) it is being directed by a stodgy English playwright. The lead actor is a loud, irreverent young man named Art O' Leary, who defies the Englishman at every turn and is eventually fired. When he comes riding back into the theatre on a donkey, all hell breaks loose.
The film's correlations between imperialist past and present are obvious, but a key concern here is the use of the Gaelic language, which is important when looking at Quinn's work. Although the play's cast is bilingual, they usually speak to each other in Gaelic, to the extreme irritation of the director, who sees this as a threat to his authority. As noted, Lament was the first independent film to be produced completely in Gaelic (Rockett, 137) and takes as its content the last great lament written in that language. Quinn clearly frames the language as a sign of resistance in present day Ireland, a way by which national identity may be asserted, through the details of everyday life. Significantly, all four of the films discussed here are in Gaelic. That the stage director is so irritated by the way that this very basic feature of Irish culture totally excludes him is a testament to the power that it holds in the proper hands. Gaelic is taught in all public Irish schools, but too often kids (city kids, anyway) see it as irrelevant, although it is still often spoken as the primary language in many rural areas. Quinn here puts language in a specifically insurgent context, explicitly showing the power of merely living as a member of a culture that modernity would have everyone forget.
Indeed, critiques of modernity run throughout Quinn's work, and these are visible here. What the Lament pines for is for O'Leary's family farm to be restored to him, for tradition to be continued. This is the reason that O'Leary came back to Ireland at all, having served in the European mercenary bands as so many Irishmen did after fleeing the English takeover (most of these exiles did not return to Ireland, giving O'Leary's tale an added nationalist zing). It is the English colonialists who interrupt this tradition, just as in the present day it is the snobbish Anglophile who does his best to undermine the Cast living like people in Conamara live. . Throughout the film the English director exhibits a rather classic colonialist approach to the indigenous culture: confound these ungovernable people, all I'm trying to do is teach them a little culture! A big part of the Lament for Art O' Leary project is to lay bare the ideology of 'acculturation', which is typically associuated with modernity. Just as the English robbed O'Leary of his land in the name of 'progress', the Englishman here hopes to rob O'Leary of his culture and the means to express that culture.
Lament is certainly the most formally inventive of the films under discussion here, with fragmented editing that jumps freely between past and present. Indeed, in places the film is edited at breakneck pace, equal parts Eisenstein and Brakhage. The most obvious reason for this liberty between time periods (in some scenes a line will be spoken in the present day and then answered by the character's 18th century counterpart) is to emphasize the link between imperialism and the past, but there are clearly other motives at work here. O'Leary's occasional direct addresses to the camera, and the clearly artificial way that the narrative is constructed gives the film a feel of analytical distanciation..
Indeed the narrative is specifically anti-illusionistic, and Kevin Rockett notes that the style "draws attention to the film's construction and thereby invites the audience to participate in uncovering its meaning" (138). This Brechtian strategy was all the rage in insurgent filmaking circles of the 1970s, recalling Fernando Solans and Octaviano Getino's statement that "a revolutionary cinema is not fundamentally one which illustrates, documents, or passively establishes a situation: rather, it attempts to intervene in the situation as an element providing thrust or rectification" (56, Italics theirs)
Furthermore, the two observe that Third cinema deals with "the great themes - the history of the country, the love and unlove between combatants, the efforts of the people that awakens - all this is reborn before the decolonized camera" (64) and all of this forms the storyline of Lament. Its correlation with Third cinema is important and hardly surprising, especially considering that during the sixties (and to a great extent to-day), Irish nationalism took much inspiration from Third world liberation movements. Bob Purdie writes that in the late 60s "nationalists and separatists were able to see themselves in the reflected glory of the third world" (84). What we see throughout the cinema of Bob Quinn, but especially in Lament, is Irish cinema as Third cinema.
The film was paid for in part by what is now known as the Worker's Party. It was then known as Official Sinn Fein, and was at that time in the midst of a split with the republican element of Sinn Fein, the Provisionals and the Irish National Liberation Army. The Officials were less interested in utopic dreams of nationalism than in the nuts and bolts of socialist organizing. The president of the Worker'sParty said of the film that 'Courageous campaigns of resistance, however noble their inspiration, will fail like the gesture of Art O'Leary if they try to ignore realities....Romantic acts of heroism or defiance may inspire people but will never organise them" (cited in Rockett, 138). But while O'Leary's lone act of defiance is defeated, this image of collective organizing is present in the Gaelic speaking amateur players. The final sequence of the film is their attendance at the 18th century funeral of the martyred O'Leary, following which they retire to a pub filled with traditional music.
Quinn's next film was the recipient of the first script grant from the newly-formed Arts Council (Rockett 129). The legitimacy that such a grant might bestow was quickly dispelled when Poitin was completed in time to be aired on St. Patrick's Day, 1979. The Irish public was outraged, and calls to ban the film rang out. The reasons for this kind of agitation are not hard to see: Quinn's tale of a hermetic distiller paints a picture of the West of Ireland utterly opposed to conventional romantic notions of the area (he notes, in Film Ireland, that he made the film as a response to The Quiet Man).Quinn here seeks to espose the elements of the Celtic identity that are most unappealing to the bourgeois/Europeanised sector of Irish society. However, Quinn goes out of his way to avoid romanticising this existence, showing it to be defined by alienation and frustration.
The story focuses around Poitin, an incredibly strong Irish liquor (roughly equivalent, culturally and alcoholically, to moonshine). Cyril Cusack plays an old distiller who lives on the Connemara islands with his grown daughter (Mairead Ni Conghaile) and employs two outcasts to sell the stuff. When a bunch of the liquor entrusted to the selling agents is seized by the police, the two steal it back and sell it off, getting drunk on the proceeds. When they get thrown out of the pub where they had been sloshing themselves all night, they make for the distiller's house in search of yet more liquor. They generally abuse Cusack's character and attempt to rape his daughter, but he has the last, dark laugh whem he convinces them to row out into the middle of the water outside his house in a leaky boat.
Colin McArthur, in his essay "The Cultural Necessity of a Poor Celtic Cinema", proposes an oppositional relationship between 'homo oeconomicus', standing for Aryan European culture, and 'homo celticus', Celtic culture. He identifies the following traits: "urban/rural, civilized/uncivilized. barbered/hirsute. cultured/natural, 'masculine'/'feminine'" (118). He identifies the Celtic features as "all the negative features the European Bourgeois did not wish to have". McArthur's specific cinematic context here is not Irish but Scottish cinema, but he seems to have been talking about the very aspects that make PoitÃin so upsetting to respectable society and such a vibrant variation in the Irish nationalist struggle.
The way that Quinn represents the two selling agents is of prime concern, for they are everything that McArthur identifies as nasty and Celtic. One is merely a big oaf who does'nt say so much (Donal McCann) and the other, the proverbial brains of the operation, comes across as a very crude tough guy type (Niall Toibin)
ibÃn). Both are living on the fringes of this already marginalised society, and both are on the dole. They are, in short, a pair of no good bums. And yet, they are the two characters that Quinn spends the most time with, not the eccentric distiller. He forces his viewer to come to terms with their need to identify with characters that fit the Bourgeois norm by giving us anti-heroes that defy such norms in a loud, sometimes (self-)destructive way. Quinn, through these outcasts, shatters the stereotypes of the rugged men of nature struggling to forge a place for themselves along the rugged coastline. He insists that they be seen as products of a culture that is brutal and impoverished, which, as Rockett points out, is comparable to an urban existence(129).
Most important in the anti-romantic perspective that Quinn adopts here is the way that he shows Western life to be defined by frustration. The selling agents have their valuable poitin stolen by corrupt police officers, but even when they steal it back they are not satisfied. The scene where the selling agents arrive to terrorise the poitin-maker is really the harshest indicator of this kind of perpetual frustration: they flail about aimlessly and destructively, yelling for more poitin, which the distiller insists he does'nt have. This comes to an (anti) climax when Toibin tries to rape the daughter: his attempt ends in impotent failure. The one thing that McCann loves, his dog, ends up getting killed by the distiller, and he discovers the body in the final scene, as they are sinking in the boat. Life in this harsh rural environment is shown to be a constant struggle for only minimal payoff: the hope of living to get drunk another day. In the end, even this goal is frustrated.
The film does, however, strike a blow for Irish nationalism in the way that Quinn insists on privileging the perspective of the marginalized, all in the name of showing us what its like to live in 'the real Ireland', which is how he identifies the Western Shore. Again a critique of modernity is implicit: it is the police, the only representatives of 'respectable' society in the entire film, who initiate all this trouble. It ends up that the poitin maker has his own mechanisms to deal with these treacherous employees, and this eventually works quite well. The society that Quinn evokes is harsh and frequently violent, but it is a distinct, fully functioning one not recognising the laws of 'civilized' Ireland. Martin McCloone ironically notes that "Poitin offer a deliberately unromantic view of the West of Ireland which, in cultural nationalism, was the repository of all those Gaelic, rural values which were to be the basis of Ireland's anti-modernist utopia"(159). Quinn certainly repudiates the romanticism attached to those 'Gaelic, rural values', but what this film is about is recognition that such values exist and continue to exist, not just in the way imagined by mainstream representation. The film ceratinly does not celebrate this rural way of life, but it does insist on its accurate representation, and in so doing validates it in a way that no romantic tale of man against nature ever could.
Again, a correspondence with third cinema is quite evident. While the film's style is not as flamboyant and jarring as Lament, it does reject Hollywood norms through its heavy use of long takes and long shots coupled with zooms, and this striving for an alternative film practise, even on a basic aesthetic level, is part of the Third cinema manifesto. PoitÃn is not actively agitational, but its rejection of bourgeois norms of representation is just as oppositional as anything in Lament. The film is a tract on what is a third world country within industrialized Europe, and it is made in direct opposition to conventional modes of cinema, both narrative and visual.
Quinn's most widely-discussed documentary has been the three-part work Atlantean, made for Irish state television. The film challenges the very notion of Celtic identity, arguing that the Irish are actually descended from seafaring peoples that also populate North Africa. The film once again rejects 'respectable' Aryan notions of Irish identity, in favour of a nationalist vision that validates the lives of those who work close to, and work hard on, the Irish land.
Three examples that Quinn offers of overlap between Irish and Middle Eastern culture are particularly instructive. The first is that of music, or 'spoken song'.which has been a key part of the culture of both Ireland and the Middle East (Morocco and Egypt are his primary examples). One sequence features Quinn cross-cutting between a man singing an extremely old Irish song in Gaelic and a Moroccan man singing in Arabic, with remarkable similarity in both tempo and tone. Both styles of music, it seems, are called 'speaking songs' in their respective languages. The second example that Quinn uses is of sails: a certain kind of two-piece sail has for hundreds of years been the standard for fishing villages on the western shore, and the same design is found in coastal villages throughout North Africa. He also finds commonalities between Arabic and Gaelic, far more, he argues, than exist between Gaelic and English. While many museum experts and academics are consulted, these sorts of reference points center the investigations firmly within coastal, rural life. Indee, his entire argument centers on the notion that small ships served to link Africa and Ireland, which are actually not that far apart by seafaring standards and whose main coastal towns spring up along points that would have been logical trading centers between the two continents.
Quinn at one point admits that he never would have thought such links to be a real possibility, but this was because he had a 'colonised mind'. In another sequence, where he is traipsing about in Morocco, he observes that everyone here speaks French and Arabic, in much the same way that everyone in the West speaks both Gaelic and English. In each place, the indigenous population has been forced to adopt the language of the colonizer. It is this common concern that informs the entire film, a quest to bring out Ireland and the Middle East's common heritage of struggle and rebellion, each one forged in the hope that the people who live there might be able to return to a way of life other than what is forced on them by powers outside their culture. The nationalist aspirations are more pronounced in this film than in any other of the films under discussion except for perhaps Lament. The irony of this is that nationalism is brought out through quite a radical challenge to the very essence of the national identity. It is a common heritage of work and struggle within the confines of rural life that Quinn advocated through his vision of nationalism, however, and it is a vision quite consistent with the perspective of his other films. It carries on his project of eradicating the identity forced upon rural people by those in positions of usually illigitimate authority, a classic anti-colonialist mission.
The film is made with many standard documentary techniques, but Quinn is a common presence and this helps to undermine any notions of anthropological 'objectivity'. He narrates the film from a first person perspective, he is seen in a good chunk of it, and he constantly questions his own conclusions, frequently noting how he had originally dismissed them as "eccentric" or "foolish". Like Lament, Atlantean invites engagement on the part of the viewer through Quinn's professed self-doubt, and works through a structure that is essentially anti-illusionist. As a result, Atlantean is not the last word on the origin of Irish culture, nor does it strive to be. Rather, its most important facet is that it adds another word. Quinn, through this film, looks to upset Ireland's place in European identity, striving to veer away from the conventional, Aryan notions of culture more palatable to respectable society.
Again, a critique of modernity is what helps to give this film much of its bite. it was broadcast not long after Ireland had been voted into the European Union, a historical event that served to usher in what was thought of as 'the new Ireland'. Seen in this context the film is clearly a reaction against this wave of cosmopolitanism. Rather than seeking an internationalism based on mutual economic enrichment, Quinn here argues for an internationalism based on shared struggle, not only against colonialism but also against the brutalities of coastal life. Quinn once said that he made these films for those ' isolated by language ...from the American-English world' (cited in Rockett, 137). Those are who this reading of history is for as well. It seeks to answer this isolation not by begging for its eradication (and for the gentrification of coastal culture) but by creating a viable alternative, viable from both a scientific and political perspective.
Quinn's most recent film is also his most ambitious, released in 35mm and playing in many film festivals and cinematheques. Following the story of a Bishop who violates the laws of the Catholic Church, The Bishop's Story takes place in a small village on Clare island and Quinn again shows the West to be harsh and impoverished, but nonetheless where a fully autonomous culture is surviving. The film is also anti-authoritarian, but in a more subtle, sadder way than Quinn's fiery earlier work. The film is visually innovative, although its minimalist style is the polar opposite of the frenzied Lament twenty years earlier. The Bishop's Story is much quieter than Quinn's earlier work, although it displays all the same commitments.
The film opens with two men, one an old Bishop and the other a middle-aged priest, in a drying out house for alcoholic clerics. As the two men get to talking, the Bishop tells the story of a 'minor indiscretion', one that he says happened so long ago that its hard to consider it very important. The narrative then flashes back some twenty years when the Bishop, then a priest assigned to a small village in the Islands, assumes his new post. But a troubled woman with whom he was once in love makes her way to the island, and he allows her to live with him as his housekeeper. The respectability of this relationship is shattered when they sleep topgether during a stormy night. She becomes pregnant, and although he at first tries to hide their relationship, he clearly has no intention of forsaking the woman, so eventually comes out with it. Naturally the Church authorities are appalled.
The culture of the Clare Island village is evoked in a way that is again anti-romantic, but which nonetheless pays respect to the powerfully coherent community that has been formed here. The villagers, most of them fishermen, are clearly very poor and the village itself has very little development. When one of the parishioners is giving birth, the bishop chats with her husband, who notes that without kids there's no future, but that there does'nt seem to be any future for them here. Indeed, this is an island stuck in the past, although no real effort, or any desire, to jump into modernity is ever enunciated. Like in Poitin, the island clearly has its own codes of behaviour and its ways of punishing those who defy them, as illustrated by the death of the man who rats out the Bishop. Furthermore, the real moment of realization that the Bishop is 'living in sin' comes when the village's population is gathered at a pub for a dance, and the Bishop puts his arm around the woman, telling her 'its wrong to lie to people like this'. He here opens himself up for judgement by the collective, his confessional sermon the next morning serving almost as an afterthought to this. The Bishop, himself a figure endowed with authority by conventional structures, here knows the absolute necessity of submitting himself to the will of his community. THis village is a fully functioning, self-governing collective.
The life that Quinn evokes here is one of perpetual struggle, and his characters are the same downtrodden rural proletarians that we saw in PoitÃn. As in that film, Quinn does his best to respect both the harshness of the land and the harshness of the people who continue to work it. While the dysfuntion of their lives is not laid as bare as it was in the earlier film, the harshness of their life is one of the film's crucial elements, making the Bishop's fall from grace at the hands of the Galway-based outsiders (the church officials) all the more blasphemous.
The film's distrust of authority figures then is certainly linked to the advocacy for a rural existence.. When the priest comes clean, the villagers themselves are less than appalled, and it is only when one of them spitefully spills the beans to the powers that be that there is any problem. Quinn, who had already striven to revise Irish religion in Atlantean, clearly has problems with the authoritarian nature of the church, framing is as a kind of colonization from within. He writes in Film Ireland that the novel upon which The Bishop's Story is based 'appealed to me because it revealed a unique tolerance towards sexual peccadilloes that I had long discovered existed inConnemara and which survived in no other community in this theocratic state'.From a former Official this hostility is not surprising, and Purdie notes that 'the main barrier to socialist ideas in Ireland was the Catholic Church' (88). The villagers adhere to the church in that they attend mass, etc., but Quinn shows that they have a certain attachment to occult religions, based no doubt on the Gnostic Christianity that he suggested in Atlantean was at the heart of Irish religion.
The most heartbreaking aspect of this anti-authoritarianism is in the scenes in the clergy rest home. The now aged and bitter Bishop cynically tells his young companion that faith is not something that a man of his position could afford, and that this is common knowledge among clerics of any influence. Quinn shows this man, in anti-romantic fashion, as hardened by the forces he's tried to serve, and ultimately broken by this theocratic/bureaucratic complex that is the Catholic Church. These are quiet and understated scenes, and their impact is shattering.
Visually the film is striking not only for its minimalist black & white photography but for its use of silent film under titles to translate the Gaelic dialogue. Long takes and long shots prevail, but unlike Poitin there is not a lot of camera movement, and Quinn's compositions are most often spare and high contrast. The film's pictorial grace and apparent artificiality, constantly reinforced by the intertitle cards, again brings the film into the realm of anti-illusionistic. Quinn this time is calling attention to the illusion itself, inviting his viewers to take pleasure in it but reminding them that this is only a movie (and a silent movie at that!). The minimalist editing and composition is certainly meant as a visual antecedent to the lives of the villagers, again an answer to the sugar coating that Hopllywood so often practises when photographing the Irish landscape. It is certainly ironic this revisionism is resurrected through the resurrection of classical film conventions, but the impulse to go back to a technologically primitive cinema aesthetic is yet another manifestation of Quinn's skepticism towards modernity, and a way of paying deference in representing a community still very much stuck in the past.
The film emerges as the culmination of Quinn's ongoing concerns: representation of the west, the oppression of 'cultured' authority and the proletarian struggle against it, an an interest in alternatives to conventional narrative form.
Gettino, Octavio and Fernando Solanas. 'Towards a Third Cinema'. In Bill Nichols, ed. Movies and Methods. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U.of California Press, 1976. 44-64
McArthur, Colin. "The Cultural Necessity of a Poor Celtic Cinema".In John Hill, Martin McCloone and Paul Hainsworth, eds. Border Crossing: Film in Ireland, Britain and Europe. Belfast: Institute for Irish Studies and London: British Film Institute, 1994. 112-125
McLoone, Martin. "National Cinema and Cultural Identity: Ireland and Europe." In McLoone et al. 146-173
Murphy, Patsy. Introduction to Galway Film Fleadh's Bob Quinn Retrospective. Galway: Galway Film Fleadh, 1993
PUrdie, Bob. "Reconsideration on Republicanism and Socialism." In Austen Morgan and Purdie, eds. Ireland: Divided Nation, Divided Class, London: Ink Links 1980. 74-95.
Quinn, Bob. "What Happened to the Bishop". Film Ireland No. 39, 8-12.
Rockett, Kevin. "Breakthrough". In Rockett, Luke Gibbons, and John Hill, eds. Cinema and ireland. Syracuse U. Press, 1988. 127-144